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  • Hard Men: Violence in England since 1750
  • J. Carter Wood
Hard Men: Violence in England since 1750. By Clive Emsley ( London: Hambledon and London, 2005. x plus 225 pp.).

The historiography of modern English violence has now developed to the point where the need for a synthesis is becoming urgent, particularly one capable of using the topic of violence to make broader points about the history of English society. If it were also able to question popular nostalgia for a mythic past era of tranquility, that would be an additional service. In Hard Men: Violence in England since 1750, Clive Emsley sets out to do all of the above, combining detailed primary research with up-to-date commentary on the field of violence history. The result combines academic rigor with accessible writing and will appeal to specialists and lay readers alike.

Although touching on a wide range of specific topics and aspects of violence, two general themes tie together the book's eleven chapters. First, Emsley is interested in undermining the comforting image of a non-violent golden age stretching from the Victorian era to the middle of the twentieth century. Especially since this period is often held up as an epoch of social order and public safety, it is important to take a closer look at actual patterns in violent crime since the late eighteenth century. Second, the author argues that cultural understandings of violence over this period were given long-term coherence by an ideal of the "English gentleman" that emphasized employing violence only when necessary and, when unavoidable, using it "fairly." Although not alien to other nations' cultures of violence, "English difference, as perceived by both English people and others, centred significantly on a characteristic reserve and restraint" (13). Such cultural imperatives were important in molding attitudes toward violence and shaping actual physical aggression; however, as Emsley points out, such ideals were only a partial description of violence's reality.

After laying out his conceptual and topical framework in an introductory chapter, Emsley explores the ever-present (though mercurial) belief in a "criminal class" and the phenomenon of periodic "panics" regarding violent crime. [End Page 766] Here, the controversial subject of crime statistics and their reliability is given a balanced discussion. The customary tolerance for "rough behaviour" is then considered, much of which (because it was seen as legitimate) would not at the time have been labeled "violence." Considerations of sport, pugilism and dueling highlight the tensions that resulted when traditional attitudes toward masculinity and license met innovative discourses of moral reform. One consequence was an unmistakable, if uneven, growth in the importance of self-control: "strict control of the passions was central" (55) to the emerging ideal of masculine Englishness. That ideal was applied to the private as well as the public sphere, leading to the slow, difficult and incomplete path toward increasing police and court efforts to prevent spousal and child abuse. The idealization of self-control also affected views of other nationalities as well as attitudes toward immigrants within England, as foreign "others" represented the face of an uncivilized, violent passion that was contrasted with English restraint. The Irish, continental Europeans and the peoples of the Empire were the most common exemplars of such presumed moral abandon; however, in the interwar period, America too came to symbolize a violent culture of "guns and gangsters" (88) that, particularly through the cinema, was seen to threaten the morals of British youth. A pair of chapters gives detailed consideration to the linked topics of popular protest and political violence. Here, it is argued that England's relatively low level of fatal political violence has hidden the extent to which "rough and tumble" (118) politics—including the use of gangs of toughs, violent street demonstrations and the intimidation of candidates and voters—were entrenched in the English electoral tradition. That tradition waxed and waned between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, until fascist violence in the 1930s cemented a cross-party consensus rejecting the "old traditions" (128). Finally, two chapters consider the violence of the state. Before the 1960s "political structures and social attitudes tended to conceal the scale of police violence" (143)—hence it...


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